Bangladesh’s leaders have still not understood the meaning of independence
by Owen Lippert and John Richards
Bangladesh is not as poor as many sub-Saharan African countries (although less prosperous than India and much less prosperous than most countries of southeast Asia), not recently subject to civil war (in contrast to Sri Lanka and Nepal), and not in possession of nuclear weapons (whereas Pakistan and India are). Despite being the world’s eighth most populous country, more populous than Russia, Japan or Mexico, it is a country that the world ignores – except when disaster strikes. Then, briefly, the international media note the large number of people killed in the cyclone or drowned in the capsized ferry. Late last year a garment factory fire that incinerated more than a hundred workers made headlines; this spring, it was the collapse of the jerry-built eight-storey Rana Plaza, a human-made disaster that killed more than a thousand garment workers.
For anyone who makes the effort to visit and learn about Bangladesh, there is heartache. Five per cent of the world’s poor are within one day’s drive from Dhaka. Dhaka itself is among the world’s ten most populous cities, and was recently ranked by The Economist as the world’s most “unlivable.” Notwithstanding its ranking, nearly 20 million choose to live in Dhaka rather than the villages from which they or their ancestors migrated, and Dhaka has become over the last half century the cultural centre (with Kolkata in the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal) of a major world language and cultural tradition.
Bangladesh demonstrates the best and worst in postcolonial politics and development policy. The best is the role played by very large NGOs (notably BRAC and Grameen Bank) in delivery of health and education services and microfinance. Thanks largely to them, Bangladesh’s population health indicators are second only to Sri Lanka’s among South Asian countries. The worst is the routinely corrupt, ferociously partisan politics that in the minds of many have discredited the value of democracy and given rise, as in Pakistan, to support for the army on the one hand and fundamentalist Islamist organizations on the other.
Politically, things do not change, a commedia dell’arte of similar political troubles played out again and again – rearranged, perhaps, but constant. The Awami League, the party currently in office, is led by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the country’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. While corrupt and administratively incompetent, Sheikh Mujib deserves credit for having led the country to independence in the 1971 “war of liberation,” allowing Bangladeshi to escape the equally corrupt but even more violent politics of Pakistan. He was assassinated in 1975. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the other large party, is headed by Khaleda Zia, the widow of another hero of the war of liberation. Her husband, who ran the country after the death of Hasina’s father, was assassinated in 1981. Since 1990 Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have each given two terms of questionable government to the long-suffering people of Bangladesh. It is not a coincidence that Sohel Rana was able to build the Rana Plaza where and how he did, nor that two engineers of Savar municipality ignored the building’s cracks and declared it safe the day before it collapsed. Rana is a prominent local leader of the youth wing of the governing Awami League..